With recent news of JK Rowling’s deal with Warner Bros, where she is to make her screenwriting debut on a Harry Potter spin off, all is not over yet in the wonderful world of wizardry and all things Harry Potter. It seems then, that the star of the prolific author of the Harry Potter series is rising ever higher. But it also appears that JK Rowling’s own personal story about her tough beginnings might have rubbed some of those that knew her before, up the wrong way and that the pre-Harry Potter success story that she spoke of as tough might not have been quite as severe as she made it out to be, according to some of her church community. Could it be that JK Rowling’s real back-story is just a wee bit deathly shallow, or could it be put down to poetic license for the sake of publicity?
When we heard about the difficult road to JK Rowling’s success, about how she struggled as a single mother on welfare, having left an explosive relationship with her journalist husband and father of her then tiny daughter, Jessica, leaving her to have to bring up little Jessica single-handedly, we all admired Rowling’s strength and determination to go on, against the odds. But there are some people – members of her church congregation in Edinburgh, Scotland – who beg to differ on just how difficult things were for her, and they seem to be a little confused, if not taken aback by the way some of them have been painted by Rowling. But then there are always two sides to every story.
Far from the multi-millionaire that she is now, JK Rowling – the ‘J’ standing for Joanne – was indeed, a graduate, married mother and former full-time employee who suddenly became a single mother on welfare. It was, as it always has been, tough to bring up a child single-handedly, especially while trying to carve out a career for oneself. With so little money coming in to make ends meet – money that the government says is sufficient to live on – there are so many variables to take into account with a growing toddler whose other parent is absent; childcare costs, clothing, food bills, utility bills (especially when moving from sunny Portugal to freezing Scotland as Rowling just had) and not to mention taking care of your own needs. Desperate needs call for desperate measures and sometimes you can find yourself in a situation that is not particularly of your choosing.
Rowling now found herself employed by her local church. She worked there as a part-time secretary, for about $24.00 per week, which was all she was allowed to make to top up her welfare, otherwise she would be categorized as fully employed and taken off the welfare system. Although it was back in the 1990s, the little she made was still not enough to get by in order to cover any other very necessary expenses. But that is not the reason that people who have known JK Rowling are feeling rubbed up the wrong way.
What Rowling reportedly said about how she was treated by some people in her church is what is baffling some of her church community, of which Rowling is still a part, when her schedule allows. Rowling had said that being a single parent already bore a stigma, but being a single parent on welfare made it far more unbearable. She spoke about how she overheard a patronizing woman at her church constantly refer to her as ‘The Unmarried Mother,’ as if she were some kind of fallen woman. She also spoke of her ‘evaporating sense self-esteem,’ yet the fact that there was dignity to be found in earning, no matter how little, was something that kept her going, even though it was dawning on her that she was becoming defined by others as something that so far removed from that of her own choosing.
Rowling said that the way in which she felt she was patronized was something to be both annoyed and yet amused at. She felt that the seemingly Victorian consensus at this rate was whether she ought to be in the church at all. She went on further to stress that she was prouder of her childrearing abilities than she was of anything that she had ever done in her life. This was the type of picture that JK Rowling seemed to remember most.
However, members of the congregation of St Columba’s-by-the-Castle, in the city center of Edinburgh seem to remember things slightly differently than the picture that Rowling is reported to have painted. They speak of how members would take it in turns to babysit little Jessica, who is now incidentally, 20 years of age. At the time, she was at an age that required plenty of attention and it would not have been conducive to multiple hours dedicated to novel writing. It was also said that the one cup of coffee that Rowling said she would nurse all day as she sat in a café, penning her novel, turned out to have come from a café that was owned by her brother-in-law. Members are also said to recall inviting Rowling into their houses for meals.
Indeed, it was the female rector of the church at that time, the Reverend Alison Fuller, who helped Rowling out financially by hiring her as a secretary back in 1994 and this was from the very same church that had been leading a sexual equality battle in the country some 20 years prior, while priding itself as a forward-thinking parish. According to congregation members, none of this seems to measure up with the backward-thinking image allegedly painted by Rowling.
Another church member and wife of a reverend, Sheila Gould, said that Reverend Fuller had “gone out of her way” to help Rowling out with work and that many people had even taken it in turns to watch Jessica, in order to give the author the room she needed to write. She also confirmed that Rowling was invited to dinners and lunches, which was something that was frequently done within the close-knit church community, and that they provided her and her daughter with a safe haven in which to exist. She added that she found it confusing that Rowling would write these things on the Gingerbread website last week, about a church that also takes in alcoholics off the street into its congregation.
The Harry Potter series author also contributes literally, as president to an organization named Gingerbread, that campaigns for single parents’ rights, with a forum for support and advice. It has been criticized for helping single parents find loopholes in the welfare system. Gould believes that some of the things that Rowling had written about her past experiences and the stigmatization she encountered could have been based on who her audience, listening to her story, was at the time.
JK Rowling is a prolific and successful author, whose ship has well and truly come in. It seems that everything she does is met with success. So what if her story was embellished a little for publicity purposes and a smidgen of rags-to-riches poetic license applied to help along the story of her success. Whatever the case may be and whether such a system was applied or not, it certainly paid off. It did so because JK Rowling happened to be sitting on the very edge of what was so desired at the time. It was written on the cards, regardless of whether JK Rowling’s back-story was deathly shallow or poetic license.
Written by: Brucella Newman